You remain pretty unassuming if you are a singles badminton player in Korea. Even if you’ve been a World No. 1 just last year. With four doubles world champions and a host of contemporary great pairings who’ve won Olympic gold, eternal trier Son Wan-Ho is accustomed to walking in the shadows of his country’s twinning heroes.
Son, that manic metronome retriever, the sage of steadiness, brushes off the reputation he carries into the Premier Badminton League as one of the top-10 stars in singles. Playing for Awadhe Warriors, he scythed through Frenchman Brice Leverdez’s bluster 15-14, 15-7, as the Lucknow team won 4-3, sealed by the equally calm play of Ashwini Ponappa and Mathias Christiansen. But it was the Korean’s no-fuss start that had set them on course. Son comes from Gyeongsangnam, a quiet city of the peninsula, and finds Mumbai a “very big city”. He was most stunned to find a sea on his first port of call in the league, and was mesmerised by the brightly lit Haji Ali shrine adjoining NSCI stadium. “I didn’t know there was a sea here,” says the 30-year-old who won his first Super Series title in Delhi.
Son has one of the most impressive head-to-head records against reigning World champ Kento Momota.
“No, no. He made mistakes when I beat him and wasn’t as experienced,” he plays down the 5-6 record, adding that the left-hander’s sharp strokes have made life miserable for him this year after he held the upper hand initially owing to his long rallying style and patience.
Son’s job, he says, is to give Korea a cushion in team events where the doubles stars do their thing and are hailed as heroes playing against Indonesia, Denmark and China. “Singles is not as popular in Korea. We haven’t won much,” he explains.
Son is known to Indians for ending Kidambi Srikanth’s run at the 2017 Worlds. “I’d lost to him twice, so I had to sit and do video analysis extensively before beating him,” he adds.
Son makes no pretence of wooing Indian fans through platitudes about the local cuisine. “No, I don’t try Indian food. It’s very pungent,” he says sniffling and looking terrified at the prospect. He says he grew the trunks of his calves by running endlessly as a child, after he was relegated to play singles at university. Korea’s top singles player is so defensive that opponents fear running into his tick-tocking rallying on slow courts. “My playing style was defensive, so they pushed me to singles,” says the player who needs to be shaken out of his reverie to attack.
He became World No. 1 without a major title, and abhorred the attention it brought. The country’s most loved singles player remains Lee Hyun Il, a 38-year-old with the most lyrical of movements and a monkish temperament. “I’ll have to win Olympics to get noticed. Otherwise it’s tough,” he says.
The DJ in the house plays a couple of K-Pop ditties, but Son ain’t impressed. “I don’t follow K-Pop. There’s too many bands there now I get confused,” he says, as if crowded by the noise. Son Wan-Ho likes the slow hum of his strokes.